You Can Write a Memoir
Chapter One: Writing a Memoir
We all have memories. They are the well from which we draw stories. And most of us have a desire to tell and hear stories, even short ones, as witnessed by the energetic conversation around our dinner tables, and by standard questions that open many of our social conversations: "What are you up to?" "What did you do today?" "What's going on?" Some of us have the desire to write down those stories, to use them to preserve our personal or family histories, and to write ourselves into the present and even the future.
When we are children, stories come to us easily: we tell them for the sake of the telling, without an awareness of what they tell about us, what they might mean to others, or of their larger meanings about the human experience. We are not bothered by notions of fact or truth, for the truth is in the telling. As adults, however, the simple desire to tell our stories becomes fraught with the necessity of making choices. Who will tell the story? The child who experienced it? The mother who watched? The father who remembers? The adult child who wants to capture the past?
The common denominator in each of these perspectives is memory, which is the foundation of the memoir. The words "memoir" and "memory" come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means "mindful." If the etymology (origins) of memoir is traced back far enough, as it is in The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, we also find a link to the Old Norse Mimir, "a giant who guards the well of wisdom." Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. Surprisingly, the word mourn also shares its derivations, and means "to remember sorrowfully" (American Heritage).
Memory is common to other genres (types) of personal writing, among them the daybook, diary, journal, and autobiography. Yet each of these, including the memoir, has distinctive qualities.
The daybook is a record of daily transactions. Writers sometimes use one to keep notes for story ideas, and to briefly record experiences, thoughts or emotions that intrigue them. The daybook is usually kept in the form of a list, rather than in paragraphs or stories.
Some dictionaries consider the daybook and the diary as synonymous, being two names for one thing, and they do derive from the same word root, dei, meaning shine, which gives us our words for day and deity. But for me, the diary goes one step beyond the listing of daily transactions: it develops events, thoughts, and emotions of the day into longer passages: paragraphs, and sometimes pages. In the diary, we conjecture about the meaning of the events of the day, and contemplate and meditate on their value in our lives; in the daybook we merely record occurrences.
The word journal also comes to us from the root dei and the word shine, by way of the word diurnal, which means daily, or a twenty-four hour period. Most dictionaries list it as a synonym for diary, but again I have a different sense of it. Writers today, I think, use a journal as a place to write about their experiences, thoughts and emotions without much concern for the day of occurrence.
The daybook, diary and journal have something in common beyond their etymologies: they are all written with the self as audience. Although others may, of course, read them, the writer is generally speaking internally, recording or working out experience for the sake of it, or for self-memory. Two other forms of writing that are predicated on personal memory differ from this in a significant way: the autobiography and the memoir are written with an audience in mind.
The autobiography on the surface is concerned with the chronology, the time line, of a life. It generally starts at a given date and progresses through the years to another date. But, as we all know, there is more to life than dates, and the sound autobiography includes consideration of family, society, and culture, even politics and history -- the soup we swim in and that gives our lives meaning.
The memoir -- the subject of this book -- while sharing with autobiography the notion of audience, differs from it in at least one significant way: it is not necessarily concerned with the chronology of things, does not have to move from date to date. Rather, it might be concerned with themes that recur within a chronology, such as a memoir about birthdays throughout one person's life. Or it might be concerned with a place, or another person, or any subject chosen by the writer. Further, the subject of a memoir might be confined to a single day in the writer's life, or might draw from days plucked from the string of the entire life.
While all five of these genres -- daybook, diary, journal, autobiography and memoir -- are pulled from the well of personal experience, of memory, the distinction of audience applied to autobiography and memoir lift them into writing on a different plane than the others. The mere recording of events, mere recollection, and even contemplation and meditation are usually not enough in themselves to warrant an audience. Writers who would speak to others, who would be heard by others, will want to make the transition from "this is my story" to "this is the story of a human life, and it is therefore also your story."
The distinction is sometimes subtle, and sometimes hard to achieve. Other times it might be clear, and achieved spontaneously. It is a frequent topic in the coming chapters, in which I will guide you through the challenging, exciting, frightening, and ultimately satisfying experience of writing a memoir.
Chapter One Writing Experiments
1. The Desire to Write
Although the desire to write a memoir might be enough in itself to inspire you to sit down and start writing, it can help to think about why you want to write a memoir. Your answers might help form your writing, and give it direction. Try composing a few sentences or paragraphs about your desire to write a memoir. Do you remember when you first thought of it? Did a certain event or object or memory trigger the desire? Do you have an end goal for your writing, such as passing on family history? Or is the writing itself your end goal, to be read the way we listen to music, just for the sake of it?
2. Writing for Posterity: Remembering So We Don't Forget
Although it may be true that we have some genetic history stored in the biologic library of our bodies, unless we preserve the stories of our personal lives, they will almost certainly be lost to the relentless passage of time.
Some of the stories are successfully perpetuated through the oral tradition, through their telling and retelling at holiday dinners, and at reunions of family and friends. These stories take on the sheen of well-polished stones, and carry within them the warmth of generations.
A similar warmth may be inspired through the writing and reading of personal histories, including the history of the family, or non-familial groups such as neighborhoods, or circles of friends, or of individuals who shine in some way in their own right.
If you are writing to preserve a memory, make a list, or some notes, or write a page or two about what it is you want to preserve. If you can, say why, although sometimes it is enough to know that you want to create the record.
3. Writing for the Sake of Writing
Often experienced writers have a yen to work on a project without knowing why, or knowing where the project will end up. They are not bothered by this, because they understand that writing is not the mere reporting of facts-in-evidence. They know that it is a process of imagination and creation, and that the story will unfold not from some predetermined plot, but from the telling of the story.
Perhaps there are subjects you want to write about, but don't know why? Maybe they are mere images, pictures in the mind, or portions of memories. Without concern for purpose or end goals, make a list of some things it occurs to you to write about. Expand your list by adding descriptions, comments, or questions to each of the subjects.